- Historic Sites
Legacy Of Violence
Sociologists continue to be vexed by the pathology of urban violence: Why is it so random, so fierce, so easily triggered? One answer may be found in our Southern past.
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
A jostle, a slightly derogatory remark, or a potential weapon in the hands of an adversary means something to many poor blacks and whites it does not mean to the middle and upper classes, some criminologists argue. “A male is usually expected to defend the name and honor of his mother, the virtue of womanhood … and to accept no derogation about his race (even from a member of his own race), his age, or his masculinity,” write the sociologists Marvin Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti. On the streets of our major cities, young men must guard against attacks on their status or demeaning words or glances. Fights over matters of pride seem to come easily and on occasion end in death.
This violence, while obviously fueled by the desperate poverty and bleak hopes of many young people, appears to have roots that stretch deep into America’s past, into the world of the colonial era and the Old South and beyond there into the Britain of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A culture of violence grew luxuriantly in the hothouse atmosphere of the slave South. Slave-owners cultivated the most self-conscious version of this culture, but the values flourished at all levels of white society and even took hold among blacks in slavery. After the Civil War and emancipation, this culture began to die from the top down, fading among the gentry even as it remained strong among poorer whites and blacks. Fed by the weakness and perceived injustice of the law, the culture of violence grew in the cities and towns of the New South and followed Southerners of both races into their new homes in the twentieth-century North. Black and white Southerners from the 1830s or 1870s would understand the values of those who most often turn to violence today, North and South.
Southern violence became legendary early in the new nation’s history. One visitor in the 1790s, appalled at the brutal fighting and eye gougings he found in Maryland and Virginia, was “credibly assured” that farther south, in the Carolinas and Georgia, “the people are still more depraved in this respect than in Virginia.” An Englishman visiting those more southerly states several years later found the violence far bloodier and more widespread than he had expected: “The eye is not the only feature which suffers on these occasions. Like dogs and bears, they use their teeth and feet, with the most savage ferocity, upon each other.”
Another traveler, Elkanah Watson, witnessed the affairs of honor within the lower class. At a Virginia courthouse on election day in 1778, Watson watched “a fight between two very unwieldy, fat men, foaming and puffing like two furies, until one succeeded in twisting his forefinger in a side-lock of the other’s hair, and was in the act of thrusting, by this purchase, his thumb into his adversary’s eye, when he bawled out ‘King’s cruse,’ equivalent, in technical language, to ‘enough.’” Watson himself came “near being involved in a boxing-match” when he rebuffed “with little respect” an Irishman who wanted to swap horses. The immigrant from Ireland, his pride wounded, swore belligerently that the Englishman did not “trate him like a jintleman.”
While backwoodsmen were brawling and disfiguring one another, planters and politicians solemnly faced each other on the dueling grounds. In 1826 a victorious duelist rushed to his fallen foe. “White, my dear fellow,” he said quietly, “I am sorry for you.” His bleeding opponent answered, “I do not blame you,” and the two duelists clasped hands. The wounded man recovered, and the other was elected governor of Tennessee a few months later. A student wrote home that college life in Virginia presented certain dangers: “Challenges are continually passing; fights are had almost every day.” Another student assured concerned faculty members that the bowie knife he carried would be used only “against a person who should insult him and refuse to give him honorable satisfaction.”
Every statistical index corroborates this eyewitness testimony. The South was far more violent than other parts of the United States from the earliest dates for which we have records. Even today a strong predictor of violence anywhere in the country is a heavy proportion of residents there who have a cultural tie to the South. Sociologists have long puzzled over the sources of the personal violence fistfights, shootings, stabbings—associated with the region. The complex answer has to begin with the Southern past.